Today Boris Johnson made his first appearance in front of the House of Commons Liaison Select Committee. Boris Johnson has been criticised for not appearing in front the committee until today. However, the Prime Minister gave evidence for 1 hour and 38 minutes.
As expected, the session focused particularly on the COVID-19 crisis. However, also unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister again had to answer question about the actions of his Chief Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings.
As a whole, the questions covered the following topics:
Dominic Cummings: Bernard Jenkin (Conservative), Peter Wishart (SNP), Simon Hoare (Conservative), Meg Hillier (Labour), Yvette Cooper (Labour), Darren Jones (Labour)
The Prime Minister was again pressed on the actions of Dominic Cummings. He continued to repeat the lines used in his Daily Briefing yesterday and refused to say that Cummings had done anything wrong. He was pressed hard on two particular issues. Firstly, he was asked by Labour’s Meg Hillier why he had not asked the Cabinet Secretary to carry out an independent investigation, as is usual in such circumstances. Johnson responded by saying that officials had enough on their hands at present and they were focusing on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Secondly, he was pressed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper on the impact the Cummings’ Affair had on the morale of British people and their willingness to continue to follow the lockdown advice. In particular, Cooper asked him directly regarding parents who contracted COVID-19 “do you want them to do that [travel across the country to seek childcare] or do you want them to stay put?”. Notably, Johnson refused to give any direct answer to this question, surely as he knew that doing so would be to confirm Cummings had acted incorrectly.
Devolution and COVID-19: Stephen Crabb (Conservative)
Stephen Crabb asked the Prime Minister about the importance of working with the devolved powers in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak and whether or not it was dangerous that lockdown policy was different across the UK. Johnson replied that the differences between England and the devolved regions were marginal and also suggested that nationalists who favour Independence are over-exaggerating those differences for political purposes. He was also asked whether the decisions of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments had led him to be more cautious in his easing of the lockdown last week. Johnson did not really answer this question.
Relations with the Republic of Ireland during COVID-19 crisis: Simon Hoare (Conservative)
Simon Hoare asked about the importance of working in harmony with the Republic of Ireland to ensure continuity of trade with them during the COVID-19 crisis. The Prime Minister said that he was in constant contact with the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, and that they working to ensure COVID-19 did not disrupt relations more than was inevitable.
2 Metres Social Distancing Guidance: Greg Clark (Conservative)
Greg Clark asked the Prime Minister why Britain relied on a 2 meters social distancing rule as compared to some European and Far Eastern countries who operated a 1 or 1.5 meter rule. The Prime Minister said that the science suggested that transmission rates were cut significantly by following a 2 metre social distancing standard.
Testing and Tracing Capability: Jeremy Hunt (Conservative)
Jeremy Hunt, the man Johnson beat to become Conservative Party Leader, asked why there had been such a delay in reaching the daily testing target in the UK. Johnson responded by essentially suggesting that Britain was not fully prepared for the pandemic. Hunt asked, in particular, whether the failure of testing and people leaving hospital without being tested was responsible for the huge number of deaths in care homes. Johnson said this was not the case and doctors had not released people who were suspected of having the virus. Hunt then went on to ask why the test return time in the UK is 48 hours when many other countries have got it down to 24 hours. He argued that this meant that there was a longer window when contacted through track and trace had 24 hours with the virus when they may have been transmitting it whilst they were unaware they may have it. Johnson said that the delay getting back the test results was going down quickly. He promised to send Hunt the latest figures following the meeting.
Sanctions for people who refuse to comply: Clive Betts (Labour)
Clive Betts asked why experts from Public Health England had not been fully utilised across the country. Boris Johnson said that everyone was now working together. Betts then asked what punishments would be put in place for those who refused to follow the rules of isolation and those that refused to give their details to tracers. The Prime Minister said he was relying on the public spirit but fines would be considered if people failed to comply.
COVID-19 in schools: Robert Halfon (Conservative)
Halfon asked the PM if he could reassure parents, teachers and students that the opening of schools was safe and there would be required PPE where needed and whether the plan was for all primary school children back a month before the Summer Holidays. Johnson said that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 could return to school safely in a socially distanced way. He said that if the governments tests were not met, this process would be reviewed and did not guarantee that all primary school children would return before September. Johnson was also asked about vulnerable pupils and whether he would support a Summer Catch-Up system. The PM said he would support any options to close the disadvantage gap caused by COVID-19. He also reminded the committee of the Government’s promise to get laptops to underprivileged pupils. Halfon also asked whether Higher Education institutions should teach online or in person. The PM said he thought it was a matter for universities to decide.
Social Justice: Stephen Timms (Conservatives)
Stephen Timms asked about two of his constituents who were not able to get any government support at the moment due to their migration status. The PM promised to look at the individual cases and would get back to him. Timms asked about what the government would do to support youth unemployment following COVID-19. Johnson suggested his government would look at a range of options to deal with youth unemployment. He suggested this crisis might be a springboard to dealing with the issue of youth employment.
Effect on Policies on Women: Caroline Nokes (Conservatives)
Caroline Nokes asked to what extent the PM had considered the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women with young children of the re-opening of schools and shops. The PM did not have much response this at all – suggesting merely that he was helped in this by having lots of women at the top of government. Nokes said that the ECHR had been ignored by Downing Street on COVID and specifically asked what experts the PM had consulted on the issue she raised. Johnson did not name a single expert that had been consulted. Nokes suggested that women were more likely to negatively discriminated against by employers as a result of COVID and their childcare situation. Noakes asked whether relying on the good will of employers was good enough. The PM said that the furlough scheme was exceptionally generous in the UK – but did not answer the question.
Impact on the Economy: Mel Stride (Conservative), Darren Jones (Labour)
Mel Stride and Darren Jones both questioned Johnson on the impact on the economy. Stride focused on questioning the PM about whether his guarantee there will be no return to austerity, despite the structural deficit growing, will mean an increase in tax rates. Johnson responded by saying he was not going to make any commitments at this point and the Chancellor would update soon.
Darren Jones asked why Furlough payments for self-employed workers were ending this week when employed workers could get them until October. The PM blustered through this question saying that self-employed workers have other mechanisms to get credit. The PM was also asked whether he would be bringing forward a full economic recovery package. He responded to by saying that the government would be doing that.
Quarantine: Huw Merriman (Conservatives)
Merriman asked about the arrangements regarding quarantine for people coming into the UK. He asked why this was being bought in now, when Britain is easing the lockdown, and had no been bought in earlier. The PM responded by saying that they did not bring it in early because the scientific advice said it would make little difference and that they were doing it now because they wanted to protect against reinfection from abroad. Merriman asked whether countries should be catergorised by their R Rate, rather than instituting a blanket ban. The PM said that the three week reviews would be used to consider the quarantine going forward.
In many ways this was an easier ride for the Prime Minister than many appearances in front of the Liasion Committee. Firstly, the focus was entirely on different aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. The Prime Minister was able to trot out the same very well rehearsed lines that he had used on the Daily Briefing the previous night. Apart from the discussions surrounding tracing, there was very little substance to the responses from the Prime Minister. Bernard Jenkin, the Chair, should undoubtedly have tried to do more to ensure he engaged with the actual question that was asked, rather than pivoted to the rehearsed lines. However, this said, some sympathy has to be shown for the fact that this was the first ever Liaison Committee hearing held remotely and this may have impacted his ability to do this.